Jill Geisler: 4 ways to give positive feedback with impact

March 15, 2023 3:09 pm

May I give you a pleasant assignment? Think about a high performer on your team. Next, write a few bullet points about what that person does to earn your high regard. Finally, take 90 seconds and format it as a message to that person.

This is a class exercise I use when teaching managers about the importance and the power of positive feedback. Together, we discover how easily we can take good staff for granted, how little time it takes to craft a note of praise, and why specificity sets the best messages apart.

That’s right: the angels are in the details. Let’s take a look at four ways to make your feedback more impactful for your team.

1 Be specific

Effective feedback calls for more than positive words. It also has to be specific. Consider the difference between these two messages:  

  • “Nice job on that report. Keep it up. I know lots of people around here who could take a lesson from you, if you know what I mean.”
  • “Your report was spot on. I especially appreciated the way you highlighted the three top issues we’re facing and how you used recent examples.”

In the first message, I used “nice” ― a weak word to describe meritorious performance. Rather than saying exactly what the person did well, I tossed off the throwaway line “Keep it up.” (Really? Would the employee stop doing good work if I didn’t say that?) Worse yet, I hijacked what should have been a focus on the recipient in favor of a dig at other staff.

In the second case, I used “spot on” ― a strong and genuine term. Then I proved my sincerity through specificity. The recipient learned that choosing to highlight three issues and to illustrate the report with recent examples was a formula for success.

When you praise behaviors, ideas or work products sincerely and specifically, you are likely to see them repeated. That alone is a benefit. But specificity does more.

Your staffers, even your highest performers, may sometimes second-guess what you really want and what direction to take. They may suffer from imposter syndrome. (I strongly recommend Leslie Jamison’s recent article in The New Yorker about the history and nuances of that malady. That’s why your words matter. When people know precisely what it is about them and their work that shines brightly for you, they are less likely to doubt themselves and their value and are more likely to expand their comfort zones and try new things.

2 Focus on the positive

Let’s face it. We need more positivity at work today. Not just for the superstars you don’t want to lose, but for the up-and-comers whose rise can be expedited by your feedback. Positive messages well-delivered help workplaces become warmer places.

Positivity also can be an antidote to quiet quitting (doing the bare minimum) or the current buzz word, resenteeism (doing the bare minimum with a nasty attitude.)

Most of all, affirming messages delivered with attention to quality and quantity ensure that your team members are getting a well-rounded feedback diet. The good stuff you deliver builds trust and social capital, which gets you through those times when you need to have difficult conversations. Plus, no one on your team can accurately say, “The only time I get feedback is if I’ve screwed up.”

3 Self assess

If you’d like to make sure you’re delivering positive feedback with impact, I’ve created a tool to help you (see below). Take the quiz and then ask yourself the following questions: How did I do? What are my takeaways from this self-assessment? How can I leverage my strengths and tackle my challenges? What could I do right now to raise my scores by at least a point, if not more, on each question?

4 Take action 

As you work to improve the impact of your feedback, here’s something you can do immediately: Take advantage of that pleasant assignment I gave you at the start of this column. You wrote about a high performer. Your bullet points helped you become more specific.

Go back and take a second look at those bullets. Do they need more detail? If you wrote self-starter or problem solver or people person, what do those terms really mean to you? What value do they bring? Share that, along with a real-life example or two. It shouldn’t take long.

Finally, do the best thing of all. Don’t let the exercise go to waste. Turn it into an actual feedback message to your employee. I predict you’ll be very happy with the outcome. Managers in my classes who deliver those notes report receiving wonderful replies from surprised and appreciative recipients.

Imagine that. Positive feedback about your positive feedback. Now that’s impact.

Positive feedback self-assessment

Grade yourself on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being “I’m a rock star at this.”

  1. I build positive feedback into my everyday interactions; I don’t wait for special occasions. ____
  2. My positive feedback is specific, sharing the “what” and the “why” of praise. The details I provide make it credible and useful. _____
  3. I routinely identify and collect examples of good work so I can reference them in my feedback to illustrate what people are doing well. _____
  4. I encourage staff to tell me about good things they or their colleagues are doing. I understand that some people hold back for fear of appearing self-promotional. That’s why I intentionally invite them to keep me informed, so I have feedback opportunities I might otherwise miss. _____
  5. My team members trust that I use feedback to empower, encourage and energize staff, not to manipulate them or to prove I’m in charge. _____
  6. My feedback isn’t only about the quality of everyday work; it’s supportive of our strategic goals as well as the personal goals and growth of individual team members. _____
  7. I’m good at reading people and situations and knowing when they would especially benefit from hearing from me. I know when to talk and when to listen. _____
  8. I’ve created a culture in which every staff member is likely to have received some genuine positive feedback in the past seven days. _____
  9. I look for reasons to celebrate our successes and to show our support for staff members. _____
  10. If I asked my staff members to fill out this quiz on my behalf, the scores they give me would resemble those I’ve just given myself. _____


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